Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Good news for small towns

If you don’t subscribe to the feed for BoomtownUSA (one of the sites linked in our sidebar), the blog maintained by economic development guru, Jack Schultz, you are missing material that is often germane to Maine’s economic development milieu.

Take for instance, last Friday’s post, about legislators and rural economic development. Schultz was a speaker at an annual conference in St. Louis, where legislative leaders from across the country gathered to hear about issues affecting rural America (which is where 20 percent of the U.S. population resides).

As Schultz is want to do, he highlighted one of the people he’s met in his travels across the U.S. and some interesting thoughts about small towns.

Milan Wall is Co-Director of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development in Lincoln, NE. Wall’s organization is well known for their success in working with small towns, starting first in Nebraska, but expanding out around the country.

For your edification, here are Wall’s Five Myths of Small Towns:

Myth One: Towns that are ‘too small’ have no future. Some have questioned whether towns of less than 300 or even 2,500 have any future but Milan cited the example of Nenzel, NE (up close to the SD border) that only has a population of 12 but was able to build a community and heritage center. Of course they used the 150 people in the surrounding farms and ranches to help them! Milan, “It is all about attitude!”

Myth Two: A community’s location is key to its survival. “Some will argue that it is location, location, location but don’t tell that to Wray, CO where 11 leaders got together and started to set some priorities for their town of 2,000. They raised money to build a recreational and rehabilitation center and then a new hospital. Today, they are doing a reverse migration, bringing doctors out of Denver to practice medicine in Wray.

Myth Three: Industrial recruitment is the best strategy for economic development. “When the key leaders in Jackson, MN were in Chicago calling on potential companies they learned that their largest industrial employer was closing its doors. They rushed back, decided to turn their ED efforts upside down and started concentrating on their own backyard businesses. In one year they replaced the 300 jobs that were lost but spread it around 10 different companies, not just one.

Myth Four: Small towns can’t compete in the global economy. Milan cited Cabela’s which is today selling products in over 140 countries around the globe. Cheyenne County, NE, where they are headquartered, is the fastest growing county in the entire Great Plains in terms of growth in per capita income.

Myth Five: The ‘best people’ leave small towns as soon as they can. Milan argued that in a post-9/11 world, young people are more security seeking. He cited a study that showed that more than 50% of high school students want to eventually return home, while 50% want to own their own business. And, this same study showed that 15% already own their own business while in high school!

Wall’s points certainly indicate reasons why Mainers across our state can be hopeful about our future.

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